Being God’s Beloved: Day 14: God’s Love and Human Sin

Being God’s Beloved: Reflections on God’s Love.

Sin is an important topic within the broader theme of God’s love, because sin not only gets in the way of God’s love, but can be considered the antithesis of love for God. Often, when we think about sin, we get hooked up in a litany of sins – sexual lust, lying, blaspheming, stealing, murder, rape and so on. We may also get a bit spiritual and think of sins like pride, sloth, gluttony, gossip. While these are all sins, I’d like us to approach this from a somewhat different perspective, which requires us to start at the very beginning.

On Day 3 we reflected on the heart of God. There we said that God has always been in fellowship with Godself, within the triune Godhead. Father, Son and Spirit have enjoyed perfect intimate communion since before the beginning of time. This kind of relationship – intimate, loving, mutual and egalitarian – is found in the innermost being of God. It not so much something that God does, as something that God is. God does not just engage in relationships; God is relationship.

Out of the fullness of the joy of relationship, God extends Godself beyond the boundaries of God and into relationship with someone other – humanity. This is not about a lack or deficit in God; rather it is about an overabundance of and overwhelming experience of relationship. God desires to expand this kind of fellowship to include others, so that we may know what God knows – the joy of perfect intimacy. God’s intention, then, is for divine-human relationships that mirror the divine-divine relationship – we should love and be loved by God in the same way that the Father, Son and Spirit love and are loved by each other.

On Day 4 we reflected on the idea that God created us in God’s own image. Although this image of God has, over the centuries been thought of as many different things – rationality, morality, creativity and so on – I have suggested that the image of God is best thought of as relationality. Because loving relationship is the heart of God, the image of God must involve loving relationship. And this is borne out by the fact that God created not a singular individual, but a couple, people in relationship with each other, one flesh. And we can thus conclude that we are most like God when we are in the same kind of relationship with each other as is found in the Godhead.

Sin, however, entered the world in Genesis 3, compromising God’s plans for intimate, perfect and eternal relationship with humanity. After Adam and Eve had eaten of the fruit of the Tree, “they realised they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves” (Genesis 3:7). Later, when God came walking in the garden, “they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden” (Genesis 3:8). The covering up and hiding jointly point to the crux of the fall – a separation from God. And that separation speaks not to a moral failure, but rather to a relationship failure. No longer do we see the kind of open-hearted, guileless, intimate, no-holds-barred relationship that existed before the Fall.  We became estranged from God. Since that day, humanity has spent its time covering up and hiding from God.

Sin can best be considered the fracturing of relationship, rather than a moral defect in the makeup of people or acts that violate God’s law. “Sin is not primarily a state of corruption calling for a divine manipulative cure, nor guilt to be wiped out through punishment or satisfaction, but estrangement from God requiring reconciliation”.[1] In the wake of estrangement from God comes disregard for God’s values and vision for humanity, and thus humanity rebels against God, resulting in further estrangement. We become not only estranged from God, but also unaware of our estrangement or need for reconciliation.

Because every human is created in the image of God, whether Christian, devout Muslim or atheist, any sin against any person is a sin also against God. God says as much in Genesis 6:9, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.” In other words, killing another person is tantamount to killing God – God is present by the image of God in every person, thus every person is connected to God (even if they are not aware of it) and any attack against another person is an attack against God. Thus there is a strong relational quality to sin.

And in addition, because we ourselves are created in the image in the God, any sin against ourselves is also a sin against God. When I do things in private, things that do not hurt anyone else but go against what God created me to be, I am sinning against myself, and thus against the image of God in me, and thus against God. Sin is relational, but it is also personal. The notion that anything goes so long as we don’t hurt anyone else does not pan out when we consider that we ourselves bear the image of God in our innermost being.

So, sin is like a three-stranded cord, with psychological, social and spiritual aspects – it is not merely an individual problem. Psychologically, I sin against myself, harming myself. Socially, I sin against others, harming them. Spirituality, all sin against myself and sin against others is sin against God’s image and thus against God. It may help to think of the heavenly and earthly beings as a massive system or network, in which the activities of each one impact on all the others because of the shared image of God. An injury to another person or oneself or a secret blasphemy against God causes injury to other, self or God, with a resultant ripple effect through the entire system. There is no such thing as private sin.

Every sin thus grieves God. Sin is a turning away from everything that God created us to be, from God’s intention in creation and from God’s vision for us as individuals and as a race. Small wonder that God wiped the slate clean in Genesis 6.

The Lord saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time. The Lord was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain. So the Lord said, ‘I will wipe mankind, whom I have created, from the face of the earth… because I am grieved that I have made them’. (Genesis 6:5-7)

The Flood is surely an act of rage, of divine wrath against humanity. Wiping out almost the entire human race should not be trivialised. And in the pulpit this wrath is often emphasised as God’s reaction to our sin; wrath, which leads to judgement and damnation.

But what is striking in these verses from Genesis 6 is the centrality of grief and pain, rather than anger. This passage, more than most, gives a unique and invaluable glimpse into the inner emotional life of God, as we are told what God felt and thought as God deliberated on the state of humanity. Grief and pain are the two emotions reported. Although God speaks of wiping humanity from the face of the earth, there is no mention of anger, and indeed the writing itself is more grief-wracked than wrathful.

Similarly, our sin elicits in God primarily a grief reaction rather than a rage reaction. When I sin, when you sin, God’s heart breaks. Anger may and sometimes does come later, but the core of God’s response to our sin is sadness, grief, disappointment.

Why? Because God has created us for so much more. God has in mind an image of what we are intended to be of what we could be if we remained in fellowship with God. And it is a glorious, wonderful image! The gap between that image and the reality is enough to break God’s heart.

Sometimes, when I sin, I want to run and hide from God’s anger towards me, and so I avoid him, which of course makes sin easier, which draws me still further away. It is a vicious circle that leads me away from fellowship, and not closer to God.

But if, rather, I think of my sin as grieving God, my motivation for avoiding sin changes. Instead of not sinning out of fear of judgement, I avoid sinning so that I do not grieve the one who I know loves me more than any other. I avoid sinning because my relationship with God is so important and vital. And when I do sin, I don’t hide out of fear, but turn back to God and share God’s grief over my own wretchedness. Grief invites reconciliation, while anger invites avoidance.

Our sin wounds God because we are intimately connected with God, whether or not we believe in God, whether or not we recognise we are connected with God. The connection is a fact that does not care about what we think about God. And that connection is an expression of God’s love for us. Our sin, then, is a violation of that love, a betrayal of God’s love.

Meditation for the Day

Give fresh thought to the topic of sin. Think about sin in your own life. Try to move beyond listing sins, to perceiving the relational aspects of sin. Bring this to God in prayer.

Prayer for the Day

Precious Saviour, forgive me for the many ways in which I break your image, which you have woven into the fabric of my being. Help me, day by day, breath by breath, to be transformed into your likeness.

Being_Gods_Beloved_square_3


[1] Brümmer, V. (2005). Atonement, Christology and the Trinity: Making sense of Christian doctrine. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, p. 49.

Being God’s Beloved: Talk 2: God’s Old Testament Love

On 19 March, we had the second talk in this series called “Being God’s Beloved”. This week, we considered the God of the Old Testament, and specifically the ways in which God’s loving heart is revealed throughout the Old Testament. We give particular attention to the story of Jonah, Nineveh and God.

Video not opening? Try clicking here.

Being God’s Beloved: Day 13: God’s Love and God’s Holiness

Being God’s Beloved: Reflections on God’s Love.

As we come towards the midpoint of our reflections, we step away from the scriptures for a while and reflect on some important theological principles concerning God’s love. These draw, in various ways, on what we have covered so far, and also anticipate what is yet to come.

Today, I invite you to think about what you think is the dominant or primary attribute of God. This is, in some ways, a return to Day 3, where we reflected on the heart of God. So, you have the advantage of already knowing my answer – love is at the heart of God. However, not all Christians agree on this – at least, not in the way I have presented it. So, this is a question that you need to think about for yourself. To decide what is central to God, what is dominant in God.

Let me present you with a commonly held view, particularly by Christians in the reformed (Calvinist) tradition, which argues for the centrality of God’s holiness. I am drawing for this on a book by Ronald Wallace, called The atoning death of Christ.

Wallace starts on the first page with the problem of sin, which he defines as “a violation of the sacred order of life established by God for his people”.[1] In the following line, he links sin (this violation of God’s order) with God’s holiness: “[God’s] holiness was challenged by [sin], and his personal bearing and life were insulted by it. He could no longer look upon his people with favour but had to avert his face from the taint of sin.”[2] Sin, then, is something that offends God personally, and specifically God’s holiness. The holiness of God is central in this presentation, and makes sin anathema to God. God is sin-repellent – God cannot stand to be anywhere near the stench of sin. And because we are inherently sinful, we become an unpleasant odour in God’s nostrils.

God’s inevitable reaction, says Wallace, is to destroy all who were involved, in any way, in the sin – this is the wrath of God. “Behind the manifestation of God’s judgement there is God’s own inward reaction and hatred of our sin that we cannot begin to conceive. It is only because he restrains this, within himself, that we are not consumed (Lam. 3:22). We noted in our Old Testament study how God appears to struggle with himself to control himself.”[3] Wallace sees an ongoing tension within God between God’s desire to obliterate us and God’s love for us.

But while it may seem to us that God’s love constrains God’s holiness (which is the source of God’s wrath), Wallace sees it as the other way round. God’s holiness is dominant, and constrains God’s love: “There is not only love in the world which we have forsaken and to which we seek to return in reconciliation, but also a law which encloses love. The God to whom we seek to return is one whose love expresses itself in ways that are constant and upon which trust can be built.”[4] So, according to Wallace, God’s love is subordinate to God’s law. In other words, God may desire to love us unconditionally and forgive us freely, but there is a ‘law’ that constrains God’s love, and that ‘law’ is God’s holiness, God’s justice, God’s need for purity. “At Calvary we see love at the centre, yet enclosed in law… We can… regard justice as the law of God’s being, and indeed of his love. It is grounded in the nature of God himself. God could not ignore sin because he cannot ignore his own holiness.”[5]

So, that is Wallace’s view: God’s holiness is dominant, and while there is love in the heart of God, it is constrained by God’s holiness, thus love is not free to act as it chooses.

I wish to suggest to you that the opposite is closer to the truth of God’s character, namely that while holiness is indeed an important and even central characteristic of God, God’s holiness is overwhelmed by God’s love, so that we are more at risk of being flooded by God’s love than by God’s wrath.

God is indeed holy, righteous, just and pure. There is ample witness to this in the scriptures. And God has a vision for who humanity should be and how we should behave. When we deviate from this vision and wind up as less that we were created to be, God is upset. ‘Upset’ is not a very appropriate word for God, though – it trivialises God response to our sin. ‘Anger’ or ‘wrath’ are surely more appropriate words for the Divine response.

But God’s wrath is tempered by God’s intense love for humanity. This love is so central and so powerful that it intercepts and cools down wrath. God’s love is like a cold shower or like a fire extinguisher. It simply shuts off wrath. And because, if we could quantify these things, God has a lot more love than wrath, love always wins – like in rock-paper-scissors, rock always beats scissors. Imagine it like this. God’s wrath is like a raging bonfire, with flames reaching metres into the air, ready to consume everything around it. But God’s love is like the Niagara Falls – a massive quantity of water. It really doesn’t matter how big the fire is, the Falls will always extinguish it.

While Wallace argues that God’s love is enclosed by law, but I suggest that God’s law is enclosed by love. We see this throughout the Old Testament. The Hebrews repeatedly lived against God’s vision for them, knocking against God’s holiness and evoking God’s wrath. But God’s chesed (God’s loving kindness, rooted in the covenant or commitment that God had made to the Hebrews) was more powerful than God’s wrath, and so God repeatedly forgave them. God instituted the patterns of sacrifice to help the Hebrews discover ways to turn from sin and return to God, patterns that facilitated their holiness, so that they could enjoy the fullness of life that God had designed for them.

Wallace says that while God’s love may want to forgive freely and unconditionally, God’s holiness (God’s law) checks God’s love and requires payment for sin. But I suggest that while God’s holiness (God’s law) may want to punish people for their sin, God’s love checks that impulse and reminds God of what is most important to God, namely God’s extravagant love for God’s beloved. And so love triumphs, every time.

The distinction that I am drawing may seem insubstantial – all the elements are present in both Wallace’s and my argument – it is just the order of precedence that has changed. But in fact it makes a tremendous difference. If love is enclosed in law, as Wallace argues, then our relationship with God must be based on fear, because God’s wrath is always only just held in check by God’s love. No matter how significant the cross as an expression of God’s love, wrath is always there. And holiness trumps love, so holiness is the first thing we encounter in God – not love. This is a dangerous God – “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31).

On the other hand, if law is enclosed in love, then love is the first thing we encounter in God. And this allows us to approach God in freedom and without fear. As God turns and notices us, God’s immediate response is not one of holiness, but one of love. It is the dominant response that we will enjoy – God turns and smiles and opens his arms. As we enter God’s embrace we will realise that we are not the way God desires us to be, the way God dreams for us to be. Here we are encountering God’s holiness – holiness is most certainly there, but it lies behind and subordinate to love. Within the loving embrace and in a response of love, we desire to be holy as God is holy. Not out of fear, but in loving response, a desire to be like God.

I invite you to weigh up these two approaches to the relationship between God’s love and God’s holiness and decide for yourself. Of course, I hope that the previous 12 days will help you see the strong thread of love that runs through the Old Testament.

Meditation for the Day

Reflect on this theological question – what is central to God? Love or holiness? What have you learned during your life as a child of God? What do you think now?

Prayer for the Day

Holy God, thank you that you have standards for and expectations of me. Help me to not fear your holiness, but to trust your extravagant love for me.

Being_Gods_Beloved_square_3


[1] Wallace, R. (1997). The atoning death of Christ. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, p. 2.

[2] Wallace, p. 2.

[3] Wallace, p. 50.

[4] Wallace, p. 37, emphasis mine.

[5] Wallace, pp. 112-113, emphasis mine.

Being God’s Beloved: Day 12: Song of Songs

Being God’s Beloved: Reflections on God’s Love.

Of all the books of the Bible, Solomon’s Song of Songs is surely the one that seems least appropriate. Just eight chapters, 117 verses, it certainly raises one’s pulse. I blush when reading it – the sexual innuendo and sensuality is palpable! The opening lines illustrate: “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth – for your love is more delightful than wine. … Take me away with you – let us hurry! Let the king bring me to his chambers” (1:1 & 3). Gracious! How odd that such a text should be included in a book that centres on religion and spirituality, the higher things of life.

At this point, you might want to go and read Song of Songs. You’ll find it in your Old Testament, just before Isaiah, a couple of books after Psalms.

There are several approaches to interpreting Song of Songs, and scholars are often not in agreement on which of these are correct. There does, though, seem to be a general agreement that this is indeed a love poem about sexual love between a woman and man; and that this human love reminds us of the intimate love between us and God.[1]

To be sure, this poem is full of evocative and sensual imagery, drawn from the life world of the ancient Hebrews:

  • Nature. Hills, mountains, gardens, fountains, wells, wind, dew, dawn, moon, sun, stars, pools, fire, flames, rivers.
  • Plants and food. Wine, vineyards, blossoms, cedars, firs, lilies, roses, apple trees, fruit, pomegranates, honey, honeycomb, milk, wheat, palms, clusters of fruit, grapes.
  • Spices and perfume. Perfume, spices, myrrh, incense, henna, nard, saffron, calamus, cinnamon, aloes.
  • Animals. Sheep, goats, mares, doves, gazelles, does, foxes, stags, fawns, lions, leopards, ravens.
  • Jewels. Jewels, earrings, necklaces, gold, silver, purple, scarlet ribbons, chrysolite, ivory, sapphires, marble.
  • Artefacts. Tents, chariots, banquet halls, crowns, towers, shields, doors, latch-openings, troops with banners, goblets.

At the literal level, the importance of Song of Songs is its celebration of sexual love between two people. Its presence in the Bible tells us that intimate love, even ecstatic love, is good and Godly. This is important, because Christianity has often given the impression that it is anti-sex.

This started a few hundred years after Christ, when the early church began to move towards the requirement for celibacy among clergy, a pattern still practised by the Roman Catholic Church. This value expanded also to the general public, with a growing belief that sex was sinful and inevitably led one deeper into sin and away from God. Sex was not appropriate for pleasure, but only for procreation, and even then, not too much of it. Marriage also was acceptable only as a solution for those whose faith was too weak to ensure celibacy. Sex was a threat to faith, not a facilitator of faith. All of this gave sex a bad name among Christians.

While we have probably largely abandoned these ways of thinking, sex remains a bit of a taboo subject in the Church. And many of us have lingering feelings of being dirty in relation to sex. The parental voice – “Don’t touch that!” – is scripted in our brains. And we seldom preach on sex and we don’t discuss it much at church. Think of this, when last did you hear a sermon preached from Song of Songs? And if you have heard one, did it spiritualise the Song or did it talk about sexual relations?

But, when we reflect on the scripture as a whole, we will realise that human sexuality is celebrated throughout the Bible. Genesis 1 and 2 present God explicitly mandating and blessing sexual relations between Adam and Eve, with the hope that they will be fruitful and multiply. Proverbs 5:15-20 and Ecclesiastes 9:9 both celebrate sex – not as a means of procreation, but as a pleasurable relational activity in its own right. Marriage was, indeed, the norm in the Old Testament, with all priests being required to be married. This affirmation of marriage and sex continues in the New Testament, perhaps most vividly shown in Jesus’ first miracle in John’s gospel – the wedding at Cana.

If you believe that canon – the selection of which texts to include in the bible – is inspired by Holy Spirit as much as the individual texts are, then the fact Song of Songs is in our Bible is important! It tells us, among other things, that sex and faith can, do and even should co-exist comfortably, side by side. There is nothing illicit about human love. Loving and being loved is not something we have to do with our eyes closed; or hoping that God has his eyes closed. It is blessed and celebrated and Godly!

But I think there are two other important lessons that we should take from Song of Songs. The first of these is that Song of Songs suggests a parallel between intimate human relationships and our relationship with God. I don’t mean by this that Song of Songs is really a poem about our spiritual relationship with God – that is a form of allegorising that has largely been abandoned over the past hundred or so years. Rather, what I’m suggesting is that one of the reasons why Song of Songs was deemed fit to be included in the Bible is because those who assembled the Old Testament canon recognised that in various ways it mirrors and illuminates our relationship with God.

There is, in our relationship with God, something of a marriage, something of a love affair. The kind of intimacy and losing-of-oneself that we can experience in human love is something like the way we can be intimate with God. We can lose ourselves in God. We can experience a similar kind of union (like, “the two shall become one flesh”) with God. The opening chapters of Hosea, where Hosea writes about his love for his unfaithful wife, are commonly understood to be about God’s love for unfaithful Israel. God says to Hosea, “Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another and is an adulteress. Love her as the Lord loves the Israelites, thought they turn to other gods” (Hosea 3:1). John the Baptist likens his relationship with Jesus as a bride with her groom (John 3:29-30). Revelation 19:6-10 speaks about a great wedding celebration that is yet to come, when God wraps up earthly history and inaugurates a new and wonderful age. Christ, the Lamb, is the groom, and we will be his bride. 

So, Song of Songs points us towards a level of intimacy in our relationship with God that in various ways is mirrored in our intimate human relationships. Of course, extrapolating from human love to divine love has its problems. Many of us have experienced corrupted human love in the form of abuse and exploitation; and many others of us have experienced inadequate love in the form of tepid and unsatisfying intimacy. But when we imagine the best of human love, as it is depicted in Song of Songs, how can we not think of the perfectly intimate love that we can experience with God?

The second important less that we can take from Song of Songs is this. If you believe that all scripture is God-breathed, then we must accept that Song of Songs is God-breathed. And that means that God’s mind and heart are in some way reflected in the text of Song of Songs. In other words, we gain some insight into the heart of God by reading this poem. And that insight is that love is deeply engrained in the heart of God.

I think we probably all would assent to the idea that God is love. But sometimes we think of this ‘love’ in rather clean, neat, sanitised terms. It’s kind of a handshake love, or a polite hug love. A little bit formal and reserved. Or, we might take it closer in parent-child terms: the kind of hug you’d give your son or daughter – warm and close, but asexual, with definite boundaries.

But Song of Songs suggests that when God thinks of us, it is not the handshake kind of love, nor the polite hug kind; not even the intense parental kind of love. Song of Songs suggests that when God thinks of us – and I know I’m pushing the boundaries here, but don’t stop reading! – it is intense, sensual, passionate, even erotic. I admit that even for me writing this, the idea of God being ‘in love’ with me is hard to get my head around. But since God created sexual love, God must be able to imagine sexual love; and sexual love may well be closer to what God feels for us than parental love. The fact that there is a book in the Bible on sexual love, but not on parental love, is significant, and probably says something important about how God loves us.

If this has gone too far for you, then let us back off it a bit.

What we can take out of Song of Songs, is that God’s love for us is extremely deep and intense, not simply like parental love, but in some way like sexual love. There is a strength and passion to God’s love for us that holds onto us tightly, that is fierce and possessive, that cherishes and celebrates, that desires to be close and exclusive, that delights and laughs, that tangos and twirls. I don’t know about you, but I find myself wanting to respond to a God who loves me like that.

Meditation for the Day

Today’s reflection may have pushed your envelope. Try not to reject them too quickly. Play with these ideas and see where they take you. You may discover a fresh experience of God’s love for you.

Prayer for the Day

God, my lover, I thank you that your love for me is intense and passionate. Let me know that I am your beloved. Kindle in me a similar love for you.

Being_Gods_Beloved_square_3


[1] Kinlaw, D. F. (1991). Song of Songs (in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary). Grand Rapids, MI :Zondervan. 

Being God’s Beloved: Day 11: The Psalms

Being God’s Beloved: Reflections on God’s Love.

The Book of Psalms is the hymnal of the Jewish community. It is a collection of private and public songs and poems that express the heart of devoted followers of Yahweh, through the ups and downs of the life of faith. They provide us with poignant and invaluable insights into the inner experiences of the relationship with God in the context of the world around us.

Walter Brueggemann has written a wonderful book called The message of the Psalms.[1] He suggests that there are three main categories of Psalms:

  1. There are Psalms of orientation, which were written from a good place in life, where things are well and God is good. Examples of Psalms of orientation include Psalms 1, 37, 112, 133 and 145.
  2. There are Psalms of disorientation, which were written when life was falling apart, God seemed absent or even hostile, where strong emotions of distress, anger, fear and despair were raging. Some examples of Psalms of disorientation include Psalms 13, 32, 50, 74, 88 and 90.
  3. There are Psalms of reorientation, which were written when we were surprised again by God’s love and faithfulness, and despair recedes and joy emerges like a sunrise. The Psalms of reorientation include Psalms 27, 30, 65, 114 and 117.

Between these three categories are two moves: a move from orientation to disorientation, where we lament the suffering that draws us away from our confidence in God; and a move from disorientation to reorientation, where we rediscover hope. The first move takes us to the cross of Christ, while the second takes us to the resurrection.

One of the things that strikes me about the Psalms is how different they are as a collection of ancient hymns from our contemporary hymns. If you review the songs we sing in church, you will discover that there are very few songs of disorientation. Mostly, we sing praise and worship, which loosely can be thought of as loud, happy songs that celebrate how great God is and quiet, heartfelt songs that meditate on how great God is. We do not have many (if any) songs that focus on anger, fear, despair. We don’t sing songs that shout at or challenge God. We don’t sing songs about how God has abandoned us. Yet, many of the hymns of the Jews were about just these things.

So, we shall give a bit more attention here to the Psalms of disorientation. Not that the Psalms of orientation and reorientation are not important – but it may be helpful to look at those Psalms that say things we don’t often say. And, of course, we need to figure out what this says about God’s love for us.

The main thing I love about these Psalms is that they are honest – sometimes brutally honest! That in itself is refreshing. Sometimes church can become a collection of botoxed faces all covering up the hurt and pain many of us feel inside. I sometimes wonder if I’m the only person struggling with sin, questioning God’s presence, unsure of my faith. Everyone else seems so together. But then other people think I’m always together and superstrong in my faith. If only they knew! It’s so easy for us to be fake with each other. And it is easy to be fake with God too. But the Psalms are not fake – raw, honest expression is what they are about.

The honesty of the Psalms is not unprecedented, though. When I see people for counselling, they are usually painfully honest about the problems in their lives. In the therapeutic context, raw, honest expression is quite appropriate. But perhaps with God we tend to censor ourselves a bit more. After all, it would not be right to offend God. And God is God – God should be spoken to with respect. We should not presume to question or challenge or be angry at God!

But that is exactly what the Psalms do. The Psalmists have learned that with God, anything goes, provided it is honest. They are willing to say anything to God, about God, knowing that so long as it is authentic, God will accept it. God’s broad shoulders are able to carry a lot of bad talk. And lest we forget, the Psalms are not simply private, unspoken thoughts between me and God – they are public, published texts. The Psalms present us with inappropriate thoughts and feelings, both acknowledged and expressed. And God accepts and responds to such expressions. If the Psalmists can do it, shouldn’t we also? The Psalms do not only show what may be done in our relationship with God, but show what we should be doing in our relationship with God. They are our textbook for prayer.

I am often struck by how blunt the Psalms can be:

  • How long will you defend the unjust and show partiality to the wicked? (Psalm 82:2)
  • You have put me in the lowest pit, in the darkest depths. (Psalm 88:6)
  • Why, O LORD, do you reject me and hide your face from me? (Psalm 88:14)
  • Your wrath has swept over me; your terrors have destroyed me. All day long they surround me like a flood; they have completely engulfed me. (Psalm 88:16-17)
  • My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, and am not silent. (Psalm 22:1-2)
  • Hasten, O God, to save me; O LORD, come quickly to help me. (Psalm 70:1)

The bluntness of the Psalms tells us something important about the view the Psalmists had of God. There seems to be a confidence in the Psalmists that one can say anything to God. That we can voice our thoughts without fear of reprisal. The Psalmists see God as accepting, permissive, tolerant, even indulgent. In a word, loving.

Let us consider one short Psalm in full, Psalm 13:

How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me?

Look on me and answer, O LORD my God. Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death; my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,” and my foes will rejoice when I fall.

But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing to the LORD, for he has been good to me.

The first stanza is a series of rhetorical questions directed angrily at God. God is accused of being absent, silent, hidden. And the Psalmist grapples with internal distress (thoughts and feelings) and troubles in the world (the enemy triumphs). And these troubles are blamed squarely on God – it is because God has neglected the Psalmist, neglected God’s chesed. No holds are barred here; there is no deference to God.

Now, we must imagine a period of silence between the first and second stanza. A time in which the Psalmist chews over the distress, simmers in the absence of God, works to make sense of the suffering. Such silences are in important part of prayer – at least as important as the words.

Then there is a shift of mood. It’s as if the Psalmist, having ventilated, settles down and begins to turn towards God in petition. See the verbs: look, answer, give light. The petition is to be seen by God: “O Lord, my God, please see me in my distress.” And the Psalmist motivates God to answer the prayer – provides reasons why God ought to display chesed.

And now, we must imagine another period of silence. A long wait. A holding of the breath. A hoping for what we dare not hope. Perhaps, even, the Psalmist goes back to the first stanza and repeats the complaint, and then the plea. It is the day of waiting on the Lord. It can take time.

And then there is another shift of mood. There is here a quiet, simple, pared down trust in God. It starts with a ‘But’, which suggests that the cause of the complaint has not been resolved; but nevertheless, in spite of the complaint, the Psalmist has found faith: I trust… I rejoice… I will sing. Quiet, authentic faith rediscovered, in the midst of suffering. A renewed recognition of the goodness of God, perhaps because of some remembered act of goodness, which gives confidence that God may be good again.

What does all of this mean for us being God’s beloved? God is not so high and mighty that God cannot or will not listen to us in our unadorned distress. God is willing and even keen to hear us as we are, warts and all. God does not become angry when we speak out at God. Instead, when we are honest, even angrily or despairingly honest, God meets us. When we say it like it is, we open a space in our hearts to experience something else that is like it is, and that is God.

In my own faith journey with God, I have increasingly come to experience that what God most wants from me in my ongoing relationship with God is authenticity – for me to be who I really am, with all my imperfections, emotions, doubts and questions. Good relationship involves the meeting of two authentic, whole persons – as soon as one or other pretends to be something other than what they are, the relationships becomes fake and, ultimately, unsatisfying. Why should it be any different with God? God loves us, and thus accepts us, wholly, as we are, and invites us to be whole and authentic, not fake. And if that authenticity is angry or despairing or accusing, then God accepts that too. This is how those who love each other treat each other.

Meditation for the Day

How authentic are you with God? Do you say it as it is, even when it’s not pretty? Or are you trying to present a good face to God? What will it take to be truly honest with God?

Prayer for the Day

Oh Lord, what I am really feeling today is… What I really think about you is… I need you to… Help me to trust in you.

Being_Gods_Beloved_square_3


[1] Brueggemann, W. (1984). The message of the Psalms: A theological commentary. Minneapolis, MI: Augsberg.

Being God’s Beloved: Day 10: Persistent Love

Being God’s Beloved: Reflections on God’s Love.

Many of us have a view of the Old Testament as portraying a God who is wrathful, violent and primitive. I had a friend who decided to stop reading the Old Testament entirely because he found the God presented there incompatible with the God that Christ knew. While his behaviour might be quite extreme, this is probably a view that is common to many, perhaps even most Christians. And truth be told, many of us have read little of the Old Testament.

So, one day I decided to start reading the Old Testament to hear the historical narrative and to see what this Old Testament God was all about. I opened at Genesis 1 and kept reading until I got to the New Testament. The thing that stood out most strongly for me from this, was that the God of the Old Testament was a loving God. I could see the angry God bits – they surely are there. But what was more dominant to me, was the loving God bits. And in particular, I was struck by the persistence of God’s love. In the face of repeated failure by the nations of Israel and Judah, God continues to love, and to love, and to love. Despite the persistent failure of God’s people to maintain their covenant with God, God remains faithful and engaged. God never gives up on them. If the Old Testament narrative as a whole taught me anything about God, it is that God persists in love.

Let’s pick up the story in 2 Chronicles after Solomon’s death. Solomon’s son Rehoboam succeeds him (chapter 10). Jeroboam and the people of Israel go to Rehoboam and ask for a lightening of the heavy labour burden Solomon had placed on them. After receiving sage advice from the elders, Rehoboam decides to follow the advice of some younger men who urge him to impose even heavier demands. Naturally, the people turned their backs on him, leading to the split of the kingdom between Israel in the north and the much smaller Judah in the south. Nevertheless, Rehoboam was a wise king in many ways and Judah flourished.

But in chapter 12, we learn that he “abandoned the law of the Lord” (12:1) and as a result “Shishak king of Egypt attacked Jerusalem” (12:2). One of Rehoboam’s prophets gives him a word from the Lord, “You have abandoned me; therefore, I now abandon you to Shishak” (12:5). God’s judgement has come on Rehoboam. Immediately, Rehoboam and his leaders “humbled themselves and said, ‘The Lord is just’” (12:6). In other words, Rehoboam grants that God is right in judging him. God sees their repentance and relents in judgement, “My wrath will not be poured out on Jerusalem through Shishak” (12:7). However, there is a lesson to be learned, “They will, however, become subject to him, so that they may learn the difference between serving me and serving the kings of other lands” (12:8).

This episode is a good example of God being “slow to anger”, which we read yesterday. God was certainly angered by Rehoboam’s abandoning of his faith. But God acts with restraint. And as soon as Rehoboam repents, God relents. The Chronicler summarises, “Because Rehoboam humbled himself, the Lord’s anger turned from him, and he was not totally destroyed. Indeed, there was some good in Judah” (12:12). Rehoboam lived out his life as a capable king. His son Abijah succeeded Rehoboam and was a good king (chapter 13). Abijah’s son Asa succeeded him and reigned in peace for ten years (chapter 14). In one battle, Asa prayed, “O Lord, you are our God; do not let man prevail against you” (14:11). His faith won him the battle. Asa’s son Jehoshaphat succeeded him and reigned for 35 years as a Godly king (chapters 17-20).

Jehoshaphat’s son Jehoram took over next (chapter 21) and aligned with the apostate Israelites. We get the first of nine iterations in 2 Chronicles of, “He did evil in the eyes of the Lord” (21:6). However, “because of the covenant the Lord had made with David, the Lord was not willing to destroy the house of David” (21:7) – here we see God once again, ‘slow to anger’ and exercising his side of the chesed agreement. It would seem appropriate if God had decided to wipe out Jehoshaphat and the people of Judah – they had, after all, forsaken God and their covenant with God. But God remains faithful and engaged. God does not give up.

God shows this engagement by stirring up the Philistines and Arabs, who invade Judah and carry off most of Jehoram’s family and Jehoram himself is afflicted with a horrible and fatal bowel disease. We are told, “he passed away, to no one’s regret” (21:20). Jehoram’s last remaining son, Ahaziah, took over and walked in his father’s footsteps and died (22:9). Ahaziah’s mother, Athalia, a worshipper of Baal, took the throne for six years and endeavoured to exterminate David’s descendents (chapter 23). The high priest, Jehoiada, having protected Ahaziah’s son Joash, organises a people’s rebellion, kills Athalia and crowns Joash (just seven years old) and reinstates the worship of God (chapter 23).

Now, this may not sound like loving behaviour from God – everyone who stands against God suffers and dies. However, it is striking that God remains actively engaged and present in the events of Judah. God never folds his arms, so to speak, or closes his eyes or reads a book. God continues to send prophets to warn the kings and enemies to defeat and humble them. This is always with a clear intention to turn the people back to God. Heavy handed they may be, but the purpose is to reconcile not obliterate.

We see this pattern of God’s blessing when the people follow God’s ways and God’s discipline when they do not through the next few kings. Joash walked for most of his 40 years as king in the ways of God, but forsook God and killed the prophet God sent to warn him (chapter 24). So, God’s judgement fell on Joash in the form of the Aramean army, who executed Joash. Joash’s son, Amaziah, takes over, follows in the ways of God and wins his first battle, then engages in idolatry and suffers defeat at the hands of the Israelites and dies (chapter 27). His son, Uzziah, follows a similar pattern of initial devotion and success, and later abandonment of God and untimely death (chapter 26). And so it continues through Jotham (chapter 27) and Ahaz (chapter 28).

Hezekiah (chapters 29-32) takes over from his father Ahaz and sets out to purify the temple, to renew the covenant with God and to celebrate a massive Passover festival. Hezekiah prayed for the people, “May the Lord, who is good, pardon everyone who sets his heart on seeking God” (30:18-19). The Chronicler says, “And so he prospered” (31:21). Hezekiah was faithful to the covenant and God bestows blessing and chesed on Hezekiah and the people of Judah. Sadly, in his last days, Hezekiah’s pride took him over and the wrath of God fell on him (chapter 32).

Manasseh took over from his father and “did evil in the eyes of the Lord” (33:2) leading Judah back into idolatry. God spoke to Manasseh and the people of Judah, endeavouring to reconcile them to God, but they did not listen (33:10). So, God brought the Assyrians against Judah and Manasseh was taken into captivity. But Manasseh repented and humbled himself, “and when he prayed to him, the Lord was moved by his entreaty and listened to his plea.. Then Manasseh knew that the Lord is God” (33:13). God here continues to engage, chastising wayward behaviour, responding positively and quickly to repentance and rewarding Godly behaviour.

Manasseh’s son, Amon, later took over and did evil in the eyes God and was subsequently killed (chapter 33). Josiah then took up the reigns and “did what was right in the eyes of the Lord” (34:2). Like Hezekiah, he purified the land of idolatry and moreover recovered the lost Book of the Law. After reading it, he called the people of Judah together and they renewed their covenant with God and celebrated the Passover in Jerusalem (chapters 34-35). He had a successful reign, was blessed by God and made a lasting contribution to Jewish faith, which sustained them through the exile. Four kings reigned after Josiah, until eventually Nebuchadnezzar invaded, sacked Jerusalem and took the people of Judah into captivity in Persia (chapter 36).

I agree that this may not sound like the most loving and friendly of relations. But I hope you can recognise that through all the ups and downs of the history of Judah (and a similar pattern can be found in Israel, as recounted in Kings) God remains engaged. God never gives up on the people of God. God repeatedly sends prophets to speak sense into those who deviate from the path of righteousness. God is quick to forgive and restore and bless. Even when God sends judgement it is designed to elicit repentance and a return to faith. Although we stopped at the exile in Persia, we could have continued, seeing God’s persistent faithfulness towards those in exile and their subsequent return to Jerusalem through the edict issued by Cyrus at God’s instigation (2 Chronicles 36:22-23).

In God’s relationship with you and with me, God always remains engaged. God’s love persists. There are times when we are turned open-hearted towards God and God is delighted and blesses us – a happy parent. But there are other times when we turn away, we ignore, we close our hearts and stop our ears, we transfer out love elsewhere, we forget. This disturbs and upsets God. Of course it does – God wants uninterrupted fellowship with us. But God does not turn away or forget us. God remains always engaged, always hoping for a breakthrough. God may send or permit life experiences that may turn us back to God, and some of these may involve suffering. These too are designed to draw us to God, to soften our hearts, to open our eyes, to restore fellowship.

God’s love persists, no matter what.

Meditation for the Day

Reflect on the persistence of God’s love in the Old Testament history of the Jewish people. Think about your own relationship with God – are you persisting with God right now? How about last year? What does it mean for you that God persists with you, even when you don’t persist with God?

Prayer for the Day

My God, I thank you for the persistence of your love for me. That even when I have lost sight of you, you do not lose sight of me. That you will try and try and try again to get through to me. Please don’t ever give up on me, no matter how hard I try to make you.

Being_Gods_Beloved_square_3

Being God’s Beloved: Day 9: Slow to Anger

Being God’s Beloved: Reflections on God’s Love.

Yesterday we looked in depth at one Hebrew word, chesed, which refers to God’s unfailing and steadfast love towards those with whom God has a covenant relationship, God’s ‘loving-kindness’. Chesed is used close to 250 times in the Old Testament. In eight of those, chesed is partnered with an important phrase, which is our focus today: “slow to anger”. There is one other place where “slow to anger” is used in the Old Testament – without the word chesed – giving a total of nine occurrences.

Although they are similar in wording, there is one version that has particular meaning to me. It is the version from Joel 2:13, “Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in chesed (love), and he relents from sending calamity.” In the services at our church, we often recite this verse in the context of a time of penitence and confession. For me, it serves two purposes:

  • First, it calls me to repent, reminding me that I am sinful, fallen, broken. It is the first phrase that does that – “Rend your heart”. It was custom among Jewish people in those days to tear their clothes when distressed, bereaved or penitent. It was a public sign of intense, heartfelt emotion. Clothes were not as common as they are today, so ripping up your costly clothing would not be done lightly. Imagine wearing your best, most favourite clothes; and then ripping them. That’s probably not something we’d do! But Joel says that we should not just rend our clothes; rather we should rend our hearts. The depth of feeling that would prompt that kind of ripping is almost unimaginable. Joel calls us to a most heartfelt and intense contrition about our sinfulness. In the preceding verse, God says, “Return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning” (Joel 2:12).
  • Second, it gives me the promise that God will respond positively to my penitence, because God is gracious, compassionate, slow to anger and overflowing with chesed. This four-fold combination gives me the courage to fess up to God, rather than to pretend that I’m okay or to avoid God in the hope that my sin might just go away in time.

Joel wrote during the time of King Uzziah, a time of prosperity for Israel.[1] But a plague of locusts threatened the economy of the region and also the ability of Israel to continue its ceremonial religion. Joel interpreted the plague as a judgement from God, warning the people of Israel that their faith had waned and become formulaic – empty ritual. He warns them of a greater judgement to come if they do not repent and develop a heart-relationship with God. But if they did repent, God would restore them.

That’s a great story of Israel, but it is also a great story of ourselves, perhaps even of you yourself. Most of us go through times of great zeal in our faith, a rich and vibrant relationship with God, a stemming of the tide of sin, growth in faith and witness, and the development of Christlikeness. But most of us probably also go through times of falling away, of cooling down, of relying on self, on flirting with sin, of going incognito and of following our own desires.

Figurative plagues of locusts may be God’s way of calling us to repentance and to a heart-relationship with God. And it is in this context that this promise, that God is slow to anger and abounding in chesed, becomes so important.

Before we go on, let me list the other eight passages where we find this phrase:

  • And he [God] passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in chesed (love) and faithfulness.” (Exodus 34:6)
  • The LORD is slow to anger, abounding in chesed (love) and forgiving sin and rebellion. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation. (Numbers 14:18)
  • They refused to listen and failed to remember the miracles you performed among them. They became stiff-necked and in their rebellion appointed a leader in order to return to their slavery. But you are a forgiving God, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in chesed (love). Therefore you did not desert them. (Nehemiah 9:17)
  • But you, O Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in chesed (love) and faithfulness. (Psalm 86:15)
  • The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in chesed (love). (Psalm 103:8)
  • The LORD is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in chesed (love). (Psalm 145:8)
  • He [Jonah] prayed to the LORD, “O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in chesed (love), a God who relents from sending calamity.” (Jonah 4:2)
  • The LORD is slow to anger and great in power; the LORD will not leave the guilty unpunished. His way is in the whirlwind and the storm, and clouds are the dust of his feet. (Nahum 1:3)

Many of these of these verses are partnered with a verse that speaks of judgement, as we see in Numbers 14:18 and Nahum 1:3. We will reflect at a later time on the topic of God’s judgement and wrath. For today, though, let us remain focused on ‘slow to anger’ in relation to chesed.

You will see from these verses that the four main elements are present in almost all of them: compassion, graciousness, slowness to anger and chesed. In addition, we have elements of: faithfulness, forgiveness of sin, not deserting, relenting from sending calamity and powerful. I suggest that all of these elements are different facets of one central concept, namely chesed. It is God’s covenant relationship lovingkindness that manifests in compassion, grace, forgiveness, faithfulness and so on. And God’s slowness to anger is part of that.

‘Slow to anger’ implies that God does get angry. Let us not kid ourselves about that. When we sin, God gets angry at us. God gets angry because sin is everything that is not what God intends us to be and do. Sin is, in essence, us turning away from God’s vision, God’s values, from God himself. And this distresses God and angers God.

But while we may expect God to go ballistic and annihilate us, we are reassured by this passage that God is slow to anger. Read these three verses from Psalm 103:8-10

The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in chesed (love). He will not always accuse, nor will he harbour his anger forever; he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities.

Here, “slow to anger” is augmented with “nor will he harbour his anger forever”.  In other words, God relents, cools down. And we are reassured that “he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities” – we do not get our just deserts from God. God forgives, God relents, God concedes.

All of this speaks to a God who lacks anger towards those with whom God has a covenant relationship. It is not that God does not angry at all – that would be disturbing in its own way. Rather, God is not full of anger. And when God does get angry, it is slow in coming.

This is important for those of us who have been raised by people who are quick to anger and prone to excessive and disproportionate anger. We may come into a relationship with God, skittish that God will be like that – one wrong move and you get smacked! We may spend our entire faith-life walking on egg shells to not arouse the wrath of God, to keep the angry giant asleep.

But this is not the God we meet in the Old Testament. The God of the Old Testament is slow to anger.

On the other hand, this same God is quick to love (chesed)! And abounding in love!

I love this contrast! Don’t you?

God is slow to anger and quick to love; lacking in anger and overflowing in love. The contrast is deliberate and points to the heart of God, the character of God. God is not full of anger, but full of love.

Many of us (and I am one of these) harbour a nagging belief that God is fundamentally, deeply disappointed in us. That we are deficient and inadequate and tainted. That we don’t live up to God’s standards. That God is perpetually frowning at us, disapproving, judging. And that if we make one more wrong move, God is likely to smite us.

But, when we take a big breath and look into the inner depths of God, when we dare to investigate what God really feels towards us, we discover that the overriding experience and feeling in the heart of God is love, not anger. Of course, we are not perfect, and we do upset God, and we mess up and sin – all of this is true and God is not unmoved by it. But this does not result in a dominance of anger in God towards us, because God is basically ‘cool’ – slow to anger. Rather, there is a dominance of love, goodwill, generosity, compassion and chesed in God towards us.

I invite you to take the risk of exploring what God really feels towards you.

Meditation for the Day

What do you think God really feels when God thinks about you? Anger or love? In what proportions? If you think God is primarily angry, read again these verses and weigh up again the ratio of anger to love. Test and challenge your belief that anger predominates.

Prayer for the Day

God of abundant love, grace and compassion, help me to truly believe that you love me.

Being_Gods_Beloved_square_3


[1] Patterson, R. D. (1985). Joel (in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Being God’s Beloved: Day 8: Chesed

Being God’s Beloved: Reflections on God’s Love.

We use words to describe and communicate experiences of life. These words are often inadequate to capture the whole of the experience. And when we try to translate them from one language to another, things get even more complicated.

One such word is the Hebrew word chesed. The 1535 Coverdale Bible translated it as ‘loving-kindness’. The NIV uses several English words or phrases, depending on the context, including love, unfailing love, great love, kindness, unfailing kindness, mercy, faithfulness and devotion. Chesed appears almost 250 times in the Old Testament. About three quarters of these occurrences refer to God’s chesed for humanity, while most of the remainder refer our chesed for one another.[1]

Chesed is most importantly a relational term. It is a pattern of interaction that takes places within established relationships. God’s love is made available to the whole of humanity – it is universal and all-embracing. But God’s chesed is a particular form of love that is exercised within established and intimate relationships between God and us. In other words, once we enter into a committed relationship with God, we experience an additional quality to God’s love, which is chesed.

Chesed may be best understood as a covenant love. Abraham entered into a covenant relationship with God in Genesis 17. At one level, the covenant is a contractual relationship between God and Abraham (and his descendants). But it is much deeper and whole-hearted than just a contract. It is a deep commitment of each to the other, much more like a marriage contract – an enduring and intimate investment in one another. With this mutual commitment comes chesed – loving-kindness, unfailing love. Chesed is the relational term that sums up the covenant.

God speaks about this in Isaiah 54:10, “‘Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my chesed (unfailing love)[2] for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed,’ says the LORD, who has compassion on you.” And again a few verses later, God’s covenant and God’s chesed are paired, “I will make an everlasting covenant with you, my chesed (faithful love) promised to David” (Isaiah 55:3b).

Chesed is not merely a warm feeling of love towards a person with whom you have a committed relationship. Rather, it is a demonstration of that commitment in acts of kindness or mercy. It is love in action, based on commitment or loyalty. Neither is chesed simply random acts of kindness to strangers – the enduring and close relationship is central. We get some sense of this in Isaiah 63:7, “I will tell of the chesed (kindnesses) of the LORD, the deeds for which he is to be praised, according to all the LORD has done for us—yes, the many good things he has done for the house of Israel, according to his compassion and many chesed (kindnesses).” Compassion and kindness here have different meanings. Compassion is more about mercy and pity, with a significant emotional component, while kindnesses refer to acts of kindness rooted in God’s relationship with God’s people.

Because God is eternal and because God’s covenant is permanent, God’s chesed endures and persists for eternity. In Jeremiah 33:3, God says, “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with chesed (loving-kindness).” And in Psalm 89:28, God says, “I will maintain my chesed (love) to him forever, and my covenant with him will never fail.” Because of this assurance, the Old Testament writers repeatedly attest to God’s everlasting faithfulness: “But from everlasting to everlasting the LORD’S chesed (love) is with those who fear him, and his righteousness with their children’s children” (Psalm 103:17); “The LORD will fulfill his purpose  for me; your chesed (love), O LORD, endures forever—do not abandon the works of your hands” (Psalm 138:8); “Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his chesed (love) endures forever” (1 Chronicles 16:34).

This last phrase, “His chesed (love) endures forever”, appears numerous times in the Old Testament. It becomes a refrain in Psalm 118, which opens and closes with the whole phrase, “Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his chesed (love) endures forever”, and which repeats the refrain in verses 2, 3 and 4. Psalm 136 also opens with the whole phrase, and has the refrain in each of the Psalm’s 26 verses. Psalm 136 is a kind of Jewish Creed, in which all of God’s great acts to that time are recited, including God’s creation of the heavens and the earth, God’s liberation of Israel from Egypt and God’s giving to them the land of Israel. “His chesed (love) endures forever!”

God’s chesed is experienced particularly when we are in the midst of adversity. Psalm 94:18 says, “When I said, ‘My foot is slipping,’ your chesed (love), O LORD, supported me.” And Psalm 32:10 says, “Many are the woes of the wicked, but the LORD’S chesed (unfailing love) surrounds the man who trusts in him.” The sense here is that God’s chesed is grasped at while we are still in the adversity. Chesed does not necessarily remove the adversity or even the distress and anxiety that adversity evokes. Within each situation, we have to seek out again God’s chesed and rediscover what it means to be loved while we struggle with life. Chesed becomes a lifeline or an anchor onto which we hold for dear life. While we struggle someone may reassure us that God loves us, but actually that is something we have to find for ourselves.

God’s chesed is what we particularly cling to when our life is in danger. In Genesis 19, when the angels of the Lord rescue Lot and his family from Sodom, Lot says, “Your servant has found favour in your eyes, and you have shown great chesed (kindness) to me in sparing my life. But I can’t flee to the mountains; this disaster will overtake me, and I’ll die.” In the midst of this threat on his life, Lot experiences the angels’ deliverance as an act of chesed. In Psalm 119, especially, life and love are intimately tied up together: “Preserve my life according to your chesed (love), and I will obey the statutes of your mouth… Hear my voice in accordance with your chesed (love); preserve my life, O LORD, according to your laws… See how I love your precepts; preserve my life, O LORD, according to your chesed (love)” (119:88, 149 & 159).

God’s chesed gives us courage to approach God, even when we have messed up. Our sin – the myriad ways we fall short of God’s ideal for us – hinders our relationship with God. But our knowledge of God’s chesed is the mandate for us, nevertheless, to come close to God, to ask for mercy and forgiveness. Old Testament writers have a unique ability to remind God of God’s own values, and then to call on God to live according to these! It’s what we’d call chutzpah (Yiddish for audacity)! For example, Psalm 51 opens with these words, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your chesed (unfailing love); according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.” David, the author of this psalm, calls on God’s chesed and compassion to access God’s mercy and forgiveness. Psalm 6:4 similarly calls on chesed to access God’s deliverance: “Turn, O LORD, and deliver me; save me because of your chesed (unfailing love).”

Perhaps one of the more audacious examples is in Numbers 14:17-19, where Moses intercedes with God who is fed up with the grumbling of the Israelites during their time in the wilderness. He quotes back to God, God’s own words! And then, standing firm on God’s promised chesed asks for God’s forgiveness of the people. “Now may the Lord’s strength be displayed, just as you have declared: ‘The LORD is slow to anger, abounding in chesed (love) and forgiving sin and rebellion. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.’ In accordance with your great chesed (love), forgive the sin of these people, just as you have pardoned them from the time they left Egypt until now.” Reminded of his own words, God says, “I have forgiven them, as you asked.” We, like Moses, can have confidence to rest in God’s chesed, because God is committed to us.

God’s chesed is abundant. It is not meted out stingily. Psalm 33:5 affirms, “The earth is full of his chesed (unfailing love)” and Psalm 119:64 echoes, “The earth is filled with your chesed (love), O LORD.” The Psalms describe God’s love as reaching to the heavens – to the moon and back! “For great is your chesed (love), higher than the heavens; your faithfulness reaches to the skies” (Psalm 108:4). And God’s chesed reaches thousands of people (probably meaning everybody), “Know therefore that the LORD your God is God; he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of chesed (love) to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commands” (Deuteronomy 7:9).

God’s lovingkindness – God’s chesed – is part of the relational package for all those who have entered into a covenant relationship with God. We can rely on God to be true to God’s character and promise, that God will keep his covenant of love with us. We can rest, peacefully, on God’s promise and God’s consistency. What God has said, God will do. It is one of the anchors of our life, not dependent on our feelings of relational security or self-worth. Not even dependent on the purity of our life. It is dependent on God’s consistent orientation towards us, an orientation of chesed.

But what if you are not in a covenant or committed relationship with God? What if you have not yet surrendered your life to Christ? While chesed is reserved for those in a covenant relationship, God still loves you and deeply wants to have a covenant relationship with you. This is God’s deep desire for each one of us – to have this sort of deep, intimate, loving relationship with you. All it requires from you is a decision to relinquish yourself to God – to surrender. Recognise your brokenness and the hollowness in yourself without God. Acknowledge your desire for and need for God. Thank God for being open to receive you into relationship. Thank God in particular for his Son Jesus Christ who has cancelled our sin and opened up the path to a wholehearted relationship with God. And commit yourself to God’s chesed. Welcome to God’s family! And to a lifelong experience of God’s chesed.

Meditation for the Day

Reflect on the meaning of chesed – God’s attitude of lovingkindness towards those with whom God has a covenant relationship. How would you relationship with God be different if you fully accepted God’s chesed?

Prayer for the Day

Loving God, remember your covenant of love to me. Let me never turn away from you. Let me never forget all your lovingkindnesses to me in the past. Let me always rest secure in your chesed.

Being_Gods_Beloved_square_3


[1] VanGemeren, W. (Ed.). (1997). New international dictionary of Old Testament theology and exegesis. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. This is the primary source of information that informs today’s chapter. I have also made some use of the Brown, C. (Ed.). (1986). New international dictionary of New Testament theology and exegesis. Carlisle, UK: Paternoster.

[2] In all the quotations from the NIV Bible today, I am placing the NIV translation of chesed in brackets, so that you can see both the original use of chesed by the biblical writers and the varied translations of chesed into English by the NIV translators.

Being God’s Beloved: Talk 1: Who is Your God?

On Wednesday 12 March, we started the series of five talks on the theme of “Being God’s Beloved” at St Martin’s Anglican Church in Irene, South Africa. The first talk asks the question “Who is your God?” and gives attention to the essence of the Triune God and the creation of humanity. The 21 minute was part of a one-hour programme, involving prayer, small group discussion and large group feedback.

Being God’s Beloved: Day 7: The God who Draws Near

Being God’s Beloved: Reflections on God’s Love.

Moses has fled for his life into the desert after killing an Egyptian guard. One day, while tending the sheep, he sees a burning bush. Oddly, although it was on fire, it doesn’t burn up, so he goes closer to get a better look. Then God speaks to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!” Moses says, “Here I am.” (I don’t know about you, but this sort of things doesn’t happen to me much. Actually, if I think hard, I can’t ever recall God speaking to me out of a burning bush! It’s enough to blow your mind.)

Then God says, “Do not come any closer. Take off your sandals for the place where you are standing is holy ground.”

Generally, when the Bible speaks about God as holy or the things of God as holy, it means two related things. First, it is about purity and second, it is about being separate. God is God, holy, exulted, powerful, tremendous, pure, untouchable, unseeable, unspeakable. God is so high and lifted up that we cannot even look upon God’s face. The theological word for this is ‘transcendence’. It means that God is enormously different from us, to such an extent that we cannot really connect with God. It includes all the omni’s – omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence and so on. It is why some people kneel or bow or genuflect – a sign of our smallness in comparison with God’s greatness, our unworthiness in comparison with God’s sublime splendour.

Here God says to Moses that even the ground around the bush through which God’s voice is projected is so holy that Moses must remove his shoes. It is, in a way, the holy of holies before the temple was built, before even the tabernacle. This is a great example of transcendence.

Transcendent is often how we perceive God to be in the Old Testament. God seems massive and fearsome, austere and remote, more likely to smite you than bless you. The Old Testament God is not the Jesus who draws alongside people, who shares a meal of bread and fish, who touches the leper, who weeps at a graveside, who calls God ‘Abba, Dad’. The New Testament God seems to us to be much warmer and a lot more approachable. The Old Testament God has to be appeased with offerings before being willing to forgive, setting out strict rules and striking down those who accidentally look into the Ark. And because of this, many of us spend a lot more time reading the New Testament than the Old Testament – it helps us feel closer to God, because God seems more accessible to us.

But here in Exodus chapter 3, we now read a most remarkable passage:

The Lord said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers. And I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”

This is absolutely one of my all-time favourite passages in the Bible! It is hard to write when you’re jumping up and down with excitement.

Notice how God describes his actions:

  • I have seen…
  • I have heard…
  • I am concerned…
  • I have come down…

Do these sound like burning-bush, holy-ground words? Are these the words of a transcendent and remote God? Is this an austere and slow-to-warm deity? No! Not at all!

These are the words of a God who is intimately connected with human experience, particularly human suffering. These are the words of a God who empathises – who shares our feelings and suffers along with us. These are the words of a God who does not observe passively from afar, but who engages and intervenes. These are the words of a God who moves into human experience rather than remaining aloof. These are the words of love.

God says, “I have seen the misery of my people… I have heard them crying out.”

As a counsellor and as a person who has been in counselling, I have come to learn that being present with someone in their suffering is very often all that is needed. Not everyone is willing to see and hear another person’s suffering. Truly, it is painful to see and hear suffering. Sometimes when someone starts talking about their not-so-happy life, we’d prefer to change the topic, or cut them off because we have an appointment, or do the empty-hearted uh-huh’s that mimic real listening while our thoughts wander. It hurts to really listen and truly witness another person’s suffering. This is exactly what God does here: I have seen… I have heard. God is willing to be emotionally present with us in our pain.

Many years ago, I suffered from a major depressive episode and wound up in a psychiatric ward. I spent my first week there trying to make myself feel better – pulling myself up by my bootstraps, putting on a brave face, hoping that I could trick myself out of depression. Of course, that did not work. One day, in the second week, I surrendered to the depression, and spent an hour long therapy session weeping. I could not speak – only tears – I had dropped to the depths of my despair and pain. My therapist spent the hour sitting beside me, saying nothing, passing me tissues. She saw me. She heard me. She did not flinch away or try to patch me up. She did not offer comfort or advice. She did not give me medication to dull the pain. She simply sat with me in the darkness, like Job’s friends (initially) sat with him in his despair. This was the first day of my recovery.

God’s willingness to see and hear the misery of his people reveals God’s love. God is willing to sit with us in the worst of our experiences, in the darkest or most savage feelings, in the worst thoughts. God does not close his eyes or block his ears. God opens Godself to hear and see our lives, just as they are.

God says, “I am concerned about their suffering.”

It is possible to see and hear someone’s suffering without being moved by it. Sometimes caregivers become so burned out that they witness suffering without feeling it – they are emotionally disconnected and shut down. But God is emotionally engaged and present. God feels! God is not unmoved. God suffers with us.

There is a difference between physical presence and emotional presence. Physical presence involves being present with someone without emotional connection. You are there, listening, using all the right counselling skills, doing your job well, but not allowing yourself to be impacted by the person’s experience. On the other hand, emotional presence involves also allowing oneself to be touched by and even hurt by the other person’s experience. It involves emotional risk, because sometimes another person’s pain can be overwhelming and frightening. It hurts to engage with another person’s hurt.

The Hebrew word translated ‘concerned’ is yada.[1] It has a range of meanings, including to recognise, perceive and care about. It is also the word used for ‘know’ – to really know someone, to understand, to have insight. And it’s the word used in Genesis 4:1 for ‘know’, as in Adam knew (had intercourse with) Eve. It is used some 20 times in Hosea to speak about our knowing and loving God. The word conveys an intimate and deep knowing of another person. It is about being in continuous and open-hearted relationship with someone. So, when God says, “I ‘know’ their suffering”, God is speaking of an intimate knowledge of human experience rooted in God’s relationship with us. It is a knowing that is so intimate it is as if God is the one who is suffering.

Today, we’d call that empathy. God empathises with us. Think on this. God is perfect wholeness and balance. There is no want, distress, need or lack in the experience of God. God is like custard with no lumps – smooth and satin. But when God chooses to be ‘concerned’, God allows the crunchiness of human experience and the sharpness of human suffering to disturb that perfection. No-one likes lumpy custard! But God chooses the lumps; God chooses to be immersed in these aspects of our life. Because God loves the whole of us – the joys and triumphs, and the darkness and sorrow. God is whole-hearted towards humanity, towards you, embracing every aspect of your life, not only certain parts of it.

God says, “So I have come down.”

The transcendent God becomes immanent – God draws near, coming right into the human sphere. God is not watching from a distance. God is present and active. ‘Coming down’ might not seem like a big deal, but consider that God is beyond time and space. God created space and time, thus lives outside it. So ‘coming down’, entering our world, is a very big deal. It is a foretaste of the incarnation of the second person of the Trinity into the individual named Jesus of Nazareth – that great emptying out of God’s divinity to be immersed into a single human life. ‘Coming down’ is, perhaps, the most remarkable aspect of God’s engagement with humanity.

The presence of God makes all the difference. God’s presence in human suffering gives suffering perspective. God’s presence in suffering gives us hope. God’s presence in suffering gives us comfort. God’s presence gives us the assurance that God knows what it is like to be us.

We cannot adequately explain suffering. But there is comfort in the testimony that God sees, hears, knows and comes. All of these are real demonstrations of God’s love for humanity. God did it for the people of Israel, which lead up to the Exodus. God did it for me when I was depressed in hospital. God does it for you in whatever situation you find yourself facing today.

Meditation for the Day

God is nearby, seeing and hearing you, knowing and feeling concerned about you, desiring to come down to be with you. Reflect on the nearness of the God who loves you and open yourself to experience God’s presence with you. 

Prayer for the Day

Oh God, my parent. Be present with me today. Help me to recognise your heart, turned towards me, with empathy and compassion. Let me lean on you.

Being_Gods_Beloved_square_3


[1] VanGemeren, W. (Ed.). (1997). New international dictionary of Old Testament theology and exegesis. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.